A babel of tongues

Debates over bilingual education are almost as old as the republic

To provide context on current subjects, U.S. News will periodically examine how a controversial issue has played out over the course of history.

During the 19th century, American schoolchildren studied in a wide variety of languages. School districts provided instruction in Polish, Italian, Dutch, or any other language that parents, many of them recent immigrants, demanded. At the time, German was the nation’s most common second language, and some Midwestern districts even set up special “dual language” schools, where students were taught in English for half a day and in German for the other half.

This open policy on foreign-language instruction began to change around the turn of the century, as waves of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe provoked fears of what Iowa Gov. William L. Harding called a “babel of tongues.” Between 1897 and 1915, 13 states passed laws requiring English instruction in basic subjects such as math, science, and geography.

During World War I, anti-German sentiment increased calls among politicians and educators for “100 percent Americanism.” By the end of the war, 37 states had imposed some type of restriction upon foreign-language instruction, with many placing explicit prohibitions on German, a language that “disseminates the ideals of autocracy, brutality, and hatred,” in the words of one California school official. Not content simply to outlaw the evil tongue, a few school districts held ceremonies to burn their German textbooks.

Immigrant ambivalence. In the years after the war, most of the language bans were repealed or struck down by the courts. Public schools became free once more to offer a wide range of foreign-language classes, ranging from Hebrew and Hungarian to Polish and Portuguese. Increasingly, however, children took only French or Latin–or, most commonly, no foreign language at all. By 1949, in fact, only one fifth of American high school students were enrolled in any non-English language class, down from almost one half in 1928. In particular, immigrant parents seemed ambivalent about their children taking courses in their mother tongues. “Italian parents appear apathetic toward their mother country,” wrote one Italian activist in Chicago, noting the shrinking enrollments in that language. “And what is worse, they sometimes deny their nationality.” Another Chicagoan concluded that his fellow Czech immigrants were “ashamed” of their ethnicity when they declined to study their ancestral language. “A Czech child belongs in a Czech class,” he declared. Parents wanted their children to learn English as a vehicle of social mobility in America. Families continued to speak their mother tongues at home, but parents contended, in the words of one 1934 Italian activist, that they lacked “practical value” in school.

In the 1950s, because of increased immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries, Spanish effectively became America’s second language. But Spanish instruction lagged in the classroom, owing to local regulations. Although no state barred Spanish instruction, hundreds of individual school districts did. In some parts of the Southwest, children were prohibited from speaking Spanish, even on school playgrounds.

All this changed in the 1960s and 1970s. Spurred by the civil rights movement, Congress and then the Supreme Court directed schools to create special programs to assist non-English-speaking students. But there were two new twists to the policy. Some of the bilingual programs elected to teach Latino children all school subjects in Spanish, a policy with virtually no precedent in American history. More important, some children did not select these programs at all but were shunted into them by virtue of their test scores or the sound of their last names.

Ironically, some of the same school systems that had once required “English only” now required students to learn in a foreign language. Last year, 70 Latino families staged a two-week boycott of a Los Angeles school to demand that their children be released from bilingual classes. Like earlier immigrants, they saw English instruction as the best ticket to economic success. Most of all, they wanted to choose which language their children would learn, and when, and how.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University.

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